Mayor of St. Louis, governor of Missouri, secretary of the interior, president of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, and ambassador to Russia, David R. Francis played an important role in the political life of the state and nation for almost forty years. A member of St. Louis’s “Big Cinch,” a group of economic and political leaders, Francis made a fortune as a grain dealer and as an officer of the Mississippi Valley Trust Company, the Terminal Railway Association, Union Electric Company, and three different street railway companies.
Born in Richmond, Kentucky, on October 1, 1850, Francis attended Robert Breck’s academy for girls, because the owner wanted a companion for his son. Because he had an uncle in St. Louis, Francis entered Washington University, graduating in 1870 with a bachelor’s degree. He wanted to earn a law degree, but he could not finance further education. Instead, his St. Louis uncle, David Pitt Rowland, employed him in his grain commission house. In six years Francis learned the business, paid off college debts, and saved enough to open his own firm in 1877. Seven years later he reorganized the business under the name David R. Francis and Brother.
Francis’s reputation grew quickly. In 1884 he became president of the St. Louis Merchants’ Exchange, the youngest person ever to hold that position. In 1885 St. Louisans elected him mayor by twelve hundred votes. Four years earlier voters had given his Republican opponent in the election a majority of fourteen thousand votes. As mayor, Francis used business techniques to cut city expenses and institute efficient administrative practices. He vetoed legislation that he deemed corrupt.
In 1888 the Democratic Party nominated Francis as its candidate for governor, and he defeated his Republican opponent, E. E. Kimball, by more than thirteen thousand votes. Relatively unfamiliar with state government, Francis cultivated committee chairmen and other legislators by hosting dinners and holding receptions in which he made clear his vision of what the state needed. He succeeded in passing laws that tightened regulations on railroads and provided for a state grain inspector. He secured passage of the state’s first antitrust law and increased appropriations for the state university. In 1892, when Academic Hall burned on the Columbia campus, he withstood efforts to change the school’s location and pushed through the legislature a $250,000 appropriation for a new building. He also secured passage of the first secret-ballot law, a uniform-textbook law for the public schools, and appointment of a geological survey commission.
After leaving the governor’s office, Francis remained active in Democratic politics. In the controversy over the free coinage of silver, he voiced strong support for the gold standard and President Grover Cleveland. In 1896 Cleveland appointed Francis secretary of the interior, a position he held until Cleveland left office in 1897. During the rest of the 1890s and early 1900s, Francis devoted himself to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. He lobbied for the city to be the location of the celebration of the one-hundredth anniversary of the purchase, organized the fund-raising campaign to finance the celebration, and served as president of the board of directors that oversaw the celebration. Certainly no one devoted more of his time and energy to the World’s Fair than Francis. At one point he explained at least one motive for his work: “St. Louis has needed something like this. We are a peculiarly self-centered people. We own our own city. We have always stood ready to furnish capital to others. We are strong and prosperous financially. But we are perhaps too independent. We need to be brought more closely into contact with the outside world. We need to learn something of our own merits and possibilities, so that many of our own people will realize a little better than they do that St. Louis is, in its own way, as great a city as any on the continent.”
In 1916 Francis left the United States for his last political adventure when President Woodrow Wilson appointed him as ambassador to Russia. With the world at war and the United States still neutral, Francis could hardly foretell what challenges he faced. As he left St. Louis on March 23, he made a strong statement urging the nation to prepare militarily for war, while praying for peace:
“I have lived three-score and five years, and sometimes ask myself the question propounded to me by many whom I have met, that is, why at my age, after rounding out half a century of activity, should I assume an onerous responsibility in an untried field, why take upon myself the stupendous task of such proportions as to tax the ability, if not to appall a diplomat of experience and distinguished service. The reply made to myself is that I consider this call one of duty, to which it would be recreant not to respond. . . . If my government, in its wisdom, calls me to an important post, which it thinks I am competent to fill on account of my years or my experience in domestic government, or in national or international commerce, I would be a poor citizen indeed if I permitted personal interests, or friendly associations, or love of ease, or even ties of consanguinity, to interfere or to prevent a favorable response on my part.”
During Francis’s time as ambassador he saw the Russian monarchy of Nicholas II overthrown, a provisional government established under Alexander Kerensky, and then the overthrow of that government by Vladimir I. Lenin and the Bolsheviks. The United States led all other governments in recognizing the Kerensky government. The Bolshevik revolution presented Francis with great difficulties. The new regime’s officials refused to allow his reports to go to Washington, and he received communications from the State Department only sporadically. With pistol in hand, he confronted mobs set on destroying the embassy in Petrograd. He eventually fled the capital when the approach of German troops made it unsafe for a representative of the United States to stay. By then, of course, the United States had declared war against Germany, and Russia had withdrawn from the war after signing the Brest-Litovsk Treaty. Francis moved the embassy from place to place by train until settling in Vologda, and he became dean of the diplomatic corps that remained in Russia. Many diplomats fled the country. Consistently, Francis urged the Russian people to stay with the Allies and protested against the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, warning the Russians against German intrigue.
Francis’s health gave way under these tough circumstances, and on November 6, 1918, attendants carried him on a stretcher aboard a US warship. In London he underwent an operation. He returned to St. Louis without ever recapturing his health and died on January 15, 1927. His wife of almost fifty years, Jane Perry, preceded him in death in 1925. The couple had six sons.
Barnes, Harper. Standing on a Volcano: The Life and Times of David Rowland Francis. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press/Missouri Historical Society Press, 2001.
Carr, Barnes. The Lenin Plot: The Unknown Story of America’s War against Russia. New York: Pegasus Books, 2020.
Cockfield, James H., ed. Dollars and Diplomacy: Ambassador David Rowland Francis and the Fall of Tsarism, 1916–1917. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1981.
Francis, David R. Papers. Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis.
Stevens, Walter B. “Missourians, David R. Francis’ Best Speech.” Missouri Historical Review 21 (April 1927): 347–52.
———. “Missourians Abroad: David R. Francis, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Russia.” Missouri Historical Review 13, no. 3 (April 1919): 195–225.
Published January 24, 2024
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